A few days back, I left us on a bare stage.
Part of my college experience, that was hugely formative, was taking a Broadway-scale musical comedy on tour over several Christmas holidays. Taking a show on tour is a set of daily lessons on the scripting and improvisation it takes to pull off a satisfying performance. Each one-night tour stop starts with a bare stage and a puzzle to solve; what mysteries are hiding that will threaten to disrupt tonight’s performance?
On this tour, I was the production stage manager, responsible for cast and crew. Along with the Tech Director and Lighting designer, we were on the hook to make whatever stage we landed on work for that night’s performance. As part of our advance planning we asked each theater for details of their environment and facilities. The high school theater we were headed to in Chicago hadn’t responded to our queries; our plan was to skip that night’s cast party and fly ahead to scout the terrain.
A perfectly reasonable plan. And one of my first lessons in the maxim “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Our plan did not provide for a snowstorm shutting down the Cincinnati airport that night. We spent the night sleeping on the floor by the gate where the first flight was scheduled the next morning. We eventually reached the theater in Chicago just as the bus with the well-rested cast and crew was pulling into the parking lot. The mystery theater turned out to be modern and well-equipped. Set up ran smoothly as did the final performance.
Was our contingency planning wasted effort? The next city, the next client, the next project always contain an element of mystery. This is the lure that attracts certain people to careers in consulting, technology, and other domains that call for innovation.
All places are mysterious when you first encounter them. What you do next depends on how you feel about mystery.
One strategy is to crush it; to impose planned order on whatever you encounter. This is the world of industry and mass production; level the field and start cranking out Model Ts. Plans reign supreme and nothing is done outside the boundaries of the plan.
It’s impossible to do creative or innovative work this way. You have to embrace and accept a level of mystery that gradually reveals itself. Plans can look only so far ahead and must be open to revision based on what is discovered in the doing.
The industrial, mass production, large organization model sharply separates planning and doing. Executives and managers plan; workers do. This is effectively impossible in the realm of knowledge work. The agile software development movement accepts this impossibility; it is built on a much more interactive linkage between planning and doing. Plan a little bit, do a little bit, adjust the plan, do some more. This is foreign to those raised in an industrial context. It’s messy. It’s not orderly.
Let go of the factory image. Return to a bare stage. Visualize planning and doing dancing with one another.